April is the sweetest month for Crescent City music mavens, yielding new releases like spring rain. The first weekend at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell has become a launch time for artists with product. You can find vaunted CDs and vinyl at the Louisiana Music Factory, a temple of culture in the city where jazz began; they also deliver by mail.
New Direction is the latest and arguably best recording yet from the drummer Herlin Riley, who plays the fest on Sunday, April 24. A third-generation musician from a storied family of New Orleans jazz, Riley has a long background performing with Wynton Marsalis. Riley’s grandfather, Deacon Frank Lastie, introduced drums into Spiritual Church rituals in the late 1920s; his mother Betty Anne Lastie Williams is a well-regarded gospel singer. Riley attended services as a boy at the deacon’s Guiding Star church in the Lower 9th Ward, where his uncle, Walter “Popee” Lastie, a mainstay drummer for many jazz and R&B groups, also played at services. Popee died in 1980. Another uncle, David Lastie, a tenor saxophonist who played on Dr. John’s Gumbo among other albums, passed away in ’87.
Growing up, Riley played trumpet and drums, a combination that registers in the fluid lyricism of his percussive style and made him a mainstay with Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Riley composed most of the songs on New Direction, which was recorded in New York for Mack Avenue. Along with Jeffrey Jones and Gretchen Valade, Riley produced the CD, which has a stellar lineup: Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall of Jamaica on bass, Bruce Harris on trumpet, Godwin Louis of Haiti on alto and soprano sax, esteemed guitarist Mark Whitfield and Pedrito Martinez of Cuba injects sinuous conga lines on three of the tracks. Herlin Riley’s years in the saddle, riding rhythms and backbeat, yield a polished, easy interplay with the horns and piano. In “Shake Off the Dust,” he plays a gentle trumpet weave among solos by Louis and Cohen. “Spring Fantasy” has warm Latin colorations and “Connection to Congo Square” gathers the surges and undulations we imagine of the place where Africans transplanted rhythms of the mother culture in the wedge of earth now contained in Louis Armstrong Park.
The finale, “Tootie Ma” is a Danny Barker romp from the 1940s in which Riley, wielding shimmering tambourines, sings of the bawdy street moll Tootie Ma who “took my pa away from ma.”
Leroy Jones, who also plays the festival on April 24, has a new release as well: I’m Talkin’ Bout New Orleans, produced with his partner in art and life, Katja Toivolo, a trombonist and graphic artist. Jones and Toivolo have major talent on various cuts – among them, Wess “Warm Daddy” Anderson on alto sax, Helen Gilet on cello, Larry Sieberth on keyboards, Jason Stewart on contra bass and drummer Shannon Powell.
A trumpeter in the New Orleans Style idiom, Leroy Jones has long appeared at Preservation Hall and Palm Court Jazz Cafe, and plays many of the European summer venues. Like Dr. Michael White and Aurora Nealand, Jones approaches the classic form not as a static idiom of standards played and replayed with unceasing familiarity, but with a solid grip on the fundamentals, using the tradition as a base from which to branch out and adding songs to a repertoire that in many minds was defined long ago by the likes of Armstrong and Jelly, marching bands like Dejan’s Olympia in their prime or Pete Fountain and clarinetist Tim Laughlin.
Leroy Jones has range and poetic articulation as a trumpeter; as a vocalist and original composer he shows a mellow mood on the title cut:
“Rolling down the river in a boat for two
Back to the city where I met you
A city full of charm where the climate is warm
The people there, they don’t fear storms.”
Boosted by a grant from Threadhead Cultral Foundation, I’m Talkin’ Bout New Orleans is Jones’ sixth independent album. For readers familiar with Jones’ CD of Yuletide brass music, the bonus track, “Wonderful Christmas,” will have long reach.